Shaun Levin

Writer-Friends

In Writing, Writing Exercises on May 27, 2011 at 10:40 am

It’s important to have friends to whom you can talk about writing, with whom writing-talk is part of the ebb and flow of all conversations. One friend is enough. One friend with whom it feels natural and right to talk about writing. And I don’t mean someone who you can moan with about how you’re blocked or can’t write or whatever (though this is important, too), but really a friend with whom you can talk about a story, or your characters in a novel, or an issue you’re having with one of your chapters and the friend wants you to go into detail. They will listen and talk to you about your characters as if they were your own family. This friend will know that these characters are as important to us as your own family.

A friend to write with is also a good thing. A friend with whom you meet up and sit down and spend twenty or thirty minutes writing and then read to each other. Sometimes the prompt to writing can be something you’ve been talking about or you can read to each other or you can look through books of writing exercises for an exercise to follow. Sometimes, too, just being together with that friend is prompt enough to start writing. That moment of stillness when you say that it’s time to write and you turn to your notebook and bow your head to the page and follow the movement of your pen.

It is also good to have a writer-friend to talk to whose issues with writing are interesting to you, whose thoughts about writing engage you and challenge you and excite you. You want a writer-friend who’s going to stretch you, who will introduce you to new writers, who’ll make you think about your own writing, a writer-friend who is both a companion and a guide. And the conversation with them will not be just about writing, but about relationships, too, and theatre, and their other friends, and your friends, and families, and food, and lovers, everything that feeds your writing and that strengthens a friendship and trust, because to talk about writing one needs to trust. It is not possible to talk to a person about writing if you don’t trust them. All of us have tried that, and sometimes we get burnt. Talking to just anyone about writing can be dangerous for the muse, even detrimental. New lovers are the wrong people to talk to about writing. And family, they often are the wrong people to talk to, although if you have a psychologist in the family (which I do), they can be a good person to have around. They will be a good person to talk to about your characters. Often they will ask good questions, they will treat your characters like the human beings they are.

Just because someone is a friend doesn’t mean you should talk to them about writing. Not many people understand the need to sit alone in a room with your imaginary companions. A writer-lover can be a good thing. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne used to read to each other at the end of each day.

There was nothing I did not discuss with John.

Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices.

I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way “competitive”, that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.

from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

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